The Paris Cinema Project

Film industry pioneer Louis Aubert had absolute confidence in the good taste of the French filmgoing public, even if it might take them a few years to recognize the quality of a film. At least, that’s what he told parliament when the French government convened for two weeks in 1937 to find answers to the question, “Où va le cinéma français?” As his most instructive example, Aubert brought up Germaine Dulac’s 1923 film, La souriante Madame Beudet. When it first appeared in Paris, it didn’t have the least success. Then, a year or two later, Aubert booked the film once again in his vast cinema chain, and this time, “triumphantly.” For Aubert, this proved that the public, over time, can be educated to appreciate the best in cinema. As an exclamation point he added, “I am absolutely convinced.”

These 1937 hearings were fascinating, as well as self-pitying and self-congratulatory, brilliantly clear-minded and annoyingly dim. They brought together a who’s who of the film industry, including, in addition to Aubert, filmmakers Marcel L’Herbier and Raymond Bernard, actress and singer Véra Korène, and, to close the proceedings, none other than Louis Lumière himself. I’ll return to portions of this expert testimony in future posts, but for now I want to concentrate on Aubert and the case of Madame Beudet, to explore film exhibition, public taste, and the fluidity, at the time, between the avant-garde and the commercial cinemas.


Germaine Dermoz in La souriante Madame Beudet

If anyone should have known about public taste, it was Aubert. As one of the leaders of the Gaumont-Franco-Film-Aubert consortium, he helped oversee a vertically integrated—although typically debt-ridden–movie company that, along with Pathé, dominated French film exhibition. In Paris alone, there were about 25 Aubert cinemas throughout the 1930’s, and many more than that throughout France. Was he right, though, about Dulac’s film, and about its reception?

Madame Beudet was based on a play of the same name by Denys Amiel and André Obey and that would be a staple in Parisian theatres throughout the 1920s and ‘30s, far better known, it would seem, than the movie. The film opened in Paris in two cinemas at once in 1923, both on the Champs-Elysées, Le Colisee and the Elysée Palace, neither of which, at least as far as I can tell, belonging to the Aubert chain. That same week, in what must have been planned as a tie-in rather than just a coincidence, the play would be staged at the Odéon Theatre, in a rotation with Eugene O’Neil’s L’Empereur Jones (The Emperor Jones). This would not be the only time that the play and the film invoked each other in Paris.

The opening of the film caused some excitement. In its issue of 15 November 1923, the film journal Cinéa-Ciné Pour Tous, which appealed to serious cineastes as well as fans, and took Hollywood films and experimental cinema equally seriously, recommended a few new films. These included La Colère des Dieux (The Vermilion Pencil [1922]), with Sessue Hayakawa, who had a large following in Paris, Ivan Mozzhukhin’s Le brasier ardent, which Cinéa claimed followed “in the path of Caligari,” Douglas Fairbanks’ Robin des Bois (Robin Hood), Jean Epstein’s Coeur fidèle, and, La souriante Madame Beudet, which the magazine called “a model of cinegraphic intelligence,” even while refusing to credit Dulac. Also that week, the evening newspaper Paris-Soir led off its “Films of the Week” section with a very favorable review of Beudet, and giving that much space to a film that ran less than forty minutes indicated at least something of the movie’s significance.


The 15 November 1923 issue of Cinéa-Ciné Pour Tous that recommended Dulac’s film to its readers

After one week, Beudet moved on to two other cinemas, both of them in the Aubert chain although each one catering to very different clienteles: the Regina Aubert-Palace in the fashionable sixth arrondissement and the Paradis-Aubert-Palace in the primarily working-class twentieth. One week later, having left both of those cinemas, Beudet played at the Cinéma des Boulevards, which I have not been able to locate. One week after this, Dulac’s film apparently disappeared from Paris.

So far, Aubert seems to have been correct when he claimed that the film didn’t do particularly well when it opened, playing for around three weeks at various venues. His further assertion, though, that he brought the film back to his cinemas a few years later, this time to rousing success, is more difficult to confirm.


The Regina-Aubert-Palace cinema in the sixth arrondissement, around 1925

In some form or other, La souriante Madame Beudet had a steady presence in Paris. Theatre companies produced the play for years, and in 1925 Dulac, her film, and the play were used to defend French colonial power in North Africa. At a January 1926 benefit “Pour les blessés du Maroc” (the wounded of Morocco), Dulac gave a speech on “Le Théâtre et le Cinéma” that seems to have included some discussion of the film and was accompanied by scenes from the play. The beneficiaries of Dulac’s efforts had received their wounds in Morocco the previous April and May after France had joined Spain in putting down a Berber rebellion. A few years later, in May 1929, Radio Marseille P.T.T., which broadcast throughout France, presented a radio version of the play.

But at least in Paris, the film is hard to find. Beudet turned up now and again in the sixth arrondissement at the Vieux-Colombier, which specialized in the avant-garde, or at various ciné-clubs, where Dulac was a constant presence as speaker and curator. I have not been able to find, however, the return engagement that Aubert mentioned, either at his own cinemas or anyone else’s.

After it left Paris, the film does seem to have worked its way through France, and perhaps it was elsewhere in the country that the film earned the success that Aubert mentioned. Aubert himself, in 1937, remained vague about exactly where he had booked the film after its first run; we may assume he meant Paris, but that might not have been the case.

In March 1924, the film had gotten to Béthune in Northern France, near Lille, where it showed at the Cinéma des Familles, part of the nationwide Aubert chain. And here we have the complete bill for the cinema, from Les Spectacles, a newspaper that covered entertainment for the region. At the Cinéma des Familles Beudet showed with an Aubert-Journal newsreel, the ninth episode of the 1923 French serial Le diamant vert, the husband and wife team of Charles Krauss and Marise Dauvray in L’Ultime Roman, and Charley, Héros malgré lui, which may have been a reissue of a Charlie Chaplin short. The mix of films is an interesting one, and probably demonstrates that even outside of Paris the experimental might co-exist comfortably with the commercial and the formulaic during the 1920s.

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Google Earth view of the Enzo Park clothing store, on the site of the Paradis-Aubert-Palace  cinema in the twentieth arrondissement

A year later, in April 1925, L’Echo d’Alger, the daily newspaper in Algiers, spoke glowingly of both Dulac and Madame Beudet, when the former gave a talk on “Les arts contre le cinéma,” the arts against cinema, which might indicate that the film had played there, and had been duly appreciated.

Film records from the 1920s are sketchy at best, so it’s possible that there was a triumphant return of Madame Beudet to Paris, and to Aubert cinemas. Even if Aubert was wrong, though, in his testimony before parliament, there are things we can learn from the exhibition of Dulac’s film. First, it seems quite likely that the filmmaker had signed a distribution deal with Aubert, making for a seemingly odd combination of experimental feminist filmmaker and industrial capitalist. We might also get a sense of the place of the avant-garde in the city and elsewhere, at least to the extent that Beudet counts as a representative example. In Paris as well as other parts of France and France’s colonies, around Lille and in Algiers, and also in the daily newspapers and more specialized cinema journals, La souriante Madame Beudet and a potboiler like Le diamant vert might be viewed as both different and quite similar, with Aubert, at least, convinced that Dulac’s movie finally had been good for his company’s bottom line.


The Paris Cinema Project

Le Dybbuk packed the Parnasse when the Yiddish film played there from May 1938 until October. But I’m getting just a little ahead of myself.

Had you gone to the movies in Paris with any regularity in the 1930s, you would have had a difficult time avoiding the cinemas that belonged to the great exhibition chains. Of the more than 200 cinemas in the city then, around three-dozen were affiliated with Pathé-Natan—the Marivaux-Pathé, Lutetia-Pathé, Select-Pathé, and the Excelsior-Pathé, to name just a few of them. And about 25 were part of the Gaumont-Franco-Film-Aubert company—the Aubert-Palace, the Voltaire-Palace-Aubert, the Paradis-Palace-Aubert, and, of course, the Gaumont Palace in the 18th arrondissement, the largest cinema in Paris (and the subject of an earlier blog post). These were among the best first-run sites in the city as well as smaller subsequent run cinemas in the neighborhoods.


The shaded area marks the sixth arrondissement, the location of the Studio-Parnasse

These chains dominated the cinematic landscape of Paris, but there were also some smaller affiliated groups of cinemas. At least during the very early 1930’s there were two Family chain cinemas in Paris, the Family-Aubervilliers and the Family-Malakoff. A few cinemas were connected to newspapers, and typically specialized in documentaries and newsreels: the two Ciné Paris-Soir locations, for instance, linked to the evening newspaper Paris-Soir, or the four-cinema Cinéac chain, each one attached to yet another of the city’s newspapers, Le Journal. And then there were a few cinemas with “Studio” in their names: the Studio de L’Etoile and the Studio-Haussmann in the eighth arrondissement, and the Studio-Féria in the twelfth, among others, and also the cinema that interests me here, the Studio-Parnasse at 11 rue Jules-Chaplin in the sixth. I’m still puzzling over the connections between these cinemas. It remains unclear to me if they were aligned in a chain or just bound by a popular name. If they were connected, however, then the case of the Parnasse might indicate that the linkage was a weak one, and that, on occasion, a cinema might be part of a chain and then independent, and then belong to a different chain altogether. The Parnasse changed more than almost any other cinema in the city, giving us a sense of the instability of exhibition there even with the ongoing control of the huge cinema conglomerates.

The Parnasse opened in 1930 as the 300-seat Studio-Paris, and then seems to have closed for remodeling about a year later, reopening as the Studio-Parnasse, the name taken from the Montparnasse section of the city of which it was a part. There were four other cinemas in the sixth at the time, the Danton on boulevard St. Germain, the Raspail on the boulevard Raspail, the Regina-Palace-Aubert on the rue de Rennes, and the Vieux-Colombier on the street of the same name. The latter showed commercial movies but also regularly scheduled avant-garde films, while the first three usually programmed films in their subsequent runs through the city, as did the Paris/Parnasse.


The current incarnation of the Danton cinema in the sixth arrondissement

By the mid-1930s two other cinemas would open in the sixth, the Bonaparte and the Lux, but the population of the left-bank arrondissement was always low—about 100,000 in 1931 and 10,000 fewer within five years—and so the number of cinemas stayed fairly low, too; the densely-populated eighteenth arrondissement, with about three times the people of the sixth, maintained eighteen or nineteen cinemas throughout most of the decade.

Around 1934 the Parnasse began to change. In the first week of January 1933, the cinema showed Eddie Cantor in Whoopee (1930), which had had a very successful first run in Paris two years earlier. But by the first week of January 1934, the Parnasse began an extended run of the Russian film Okraina (1933), which seems to have kept crowds coming for more than two months, until it was replaced by the Hollywood film Thomas Garner (The Power and the Glory [1933]) that had opened the year before at the Edouard VII cinema in the ninth arrondissement.

The listings for the Parnasse get a little sketchy after this, but it appears that by 1935 the cinema showed foreign films almost exclusively. Those foreign films never came from Hollywood or from the UK, however. They seem to have been mostly Russian, with a German film here and there. In 1936, for instance, the Parnasse showed a double-bill of two Russian films, Le Nouveau Gulliver (Novyy Gulliver [1935]) and Harmonika (1937), and then followed that up with Ceux du Kholkoze, a Russian film from 1936 that had already had an extended run in Paris at the Cinéma du Pantheon in the fifth arrondissement, the other cinema in the city that often showed Soviet movies.

Perhaps two cinemas showing Russian films were too many, because by 1937 the cinema had become the Ce Soir-Parnasse, one of three cinemas linked to the Paris newspaper Ce Soir, along with the Ce Soir-Italiens on the boulevard des Italiens in the ninth arrondissement and the Ce Soir-Pigalle on the boulevard Clichy in the eighteenth. Those cinemas showed newsreels produced by the newspaper and, usually, a reissued film, as when the Parnasse, in October 1938, presented “actualités” followed by the great hit from a few years before, New York-Miami (It Happened One Night [1934]).

That incarnation didn’t last long. Within a few months the Parnasse had left the Ce Soir chain and was, apparently, an independent cinema. And now it showed Yiddish films. The first program I’ve found comes from February 1939, when the Parnasse paired a 1911 German silent film short, Liebe und Leidenschaft, with an American-made Yiddish feature, Kol Nidre (1939), starring Polish actress Lili Liliana. After that, of course, came the months-long run of the 1937 Polish production Le Dybbuk, which also starred Liliana. The play on which the movie was based had last appeared in Paris in October 1937, performed at the Salle Pleyel in the eighth arrondissement by the Habimah Theatre, which had been founded in Russia but by then had moved to British Mandate Palestine. The movie version’s engagement at the Parnasse, however, apparently marked its Paris premiere. For the entirety of its run at the Parnasse, Le Dybbuk showed on a double-bill with Terre d’Espagne (This Spanish Earth), the 1937 Joris Ivens English-language documentary (shown either with sub-titles or with a French narration) about the efforts of the Spanish republican government to defeat the fascists led by General Franco.


Lili Liliana in Le Dybbuk

Of course, before the war, there was a significant Jewish community in Paris, and while they lived throughout the city in the 1930’s, the greatest numbers were in the Marais in the fourth arrondissement, just across the seine from the Parnasse in the sixth arrondissement, and then secondarily in the ninth, which was less convenient to the screenings there.

There was enough demand for Yiddish films that a few other cinemas regularly showed them. The Bellevue in particular, in the twentieth arrondissement, but also the Studio- Monceau in the eighth, the Agriculteurs in the ninth, and the Palermo in the eleventh. Nevertheless, the timing of the Parnasse’s commitment to Yiddish cinema couldn’t have been worse. With the June 1940 surrender to Germany and the subsequent Nazi occupation of Paris, there was—and this is, of course, an understatement—no place for an exhibition site of this kind in the city.

All Parisian cinemas seem to have closed at the surrender, but the Parnasse reopened fairly quickly. At least by the middle of summer 1941 it was showing reissues of older German and French films, as well as occasional pictures made by Continental, the German-controlled studio that produced French movies during the war. At the end of August 1941, for instance, the Parnasse showed the 1930 German mountain film Tempêtes sur le Mont-Blanc (Stürme über Mont Blanc), starring Leni Riefensthal, as well as the 1936 Sacha Guitry comedy, Mon père avait raison, and perhaps as an attempted sign of benign Franco-German relations, Ladislas Starevich’s animated feature from 1930, Le roman de renard, a co-production of the two countries. By November of that year, the Parnasse had become important enough to host the exclusive second-run engagement of a Continental film, Le dernier des six, a thriller written by Henri-Georges Clouzot that had opened two months before at the Normandie cinema on the Champs-Elysées and that featured Pierre Fresnay and Suzie Delair, two major stars from the period.


Inside the Studio-Parnasse in the 1950s

By early-1947, almost three years after the liberation of Paris, there were eight cinemas in the sixth arrondissement with the addition of the Latin and the Pax-Sevres. The Parnasse continued more or less in its wartime capacity, as a site for reissues of popular movies. In the only listing I’ve found from the period, from the week of 15 January 1947, the cinema showed another Pierre Fresnay film, Julien Duvivier’s La Charette fantôme, which had first shown in Paris in 1939.

After this, I lose track of the Parnasse for about 40 years. By 1989, the cinema had been renamed the Juillet-Parnasse, one of several Juillet cinemas in the city, all of them almost certainly linked in a small exhibition chain. Within the next dozen years or so, the Parnasse seems to have changed hands again, becoming part of the extensive MK2 chain of cinemas. On my last visit to Paris, in July 2015, the MK2-Parnasse cycled seven films each week through its three screening rooms, each one of them a reprise of a recent French, German, or British film, and now it was just one of fifteen cinemas in the sixth arrondissement.


The Studio-Parnasse—now the MK2 Parnasse—as it looks today